The Medal of Honor symbolizes the ideals of patriotism, courage, sacrifice, and integrity and is the highest award presented for military valor in action. These recipients have shown bravery in combat, going above and beyond the call of duty, risking – and often sacrificing – their lives for the welfare of others.
First introduced for the Department of the Navy in 1861, the Medal of Honor would be created for the Department of the Army’s Medal of Honor in 1862. The Department of the Air Force, which originally used the same Medal as the Department of the Army, introduced their own Medal of Honor in 1965. Since its inception during the U.S. Civil War, more than 3500 recipients have been honored with the Medal of Honor.
This is the story of a Medal of Honor recipient.
The grounds of Bellefonte’s Union Cemetery were familiar to me as I’ve wandered the historic hillside over the years to pay respects to the residents buried there. Among those resting in the historic cemetery are the founders of the community, three Pennsylvania governors, Civil War figures, and numerous political leaders who have made an impact on the state and national stage.
On this day I arrived to visit a Civil War soldier who rests in the cemetery’s Soldiers Circle. Soldier’s Circles are plots purchased by the G.A.R. – the Grand Army of the Republic – lodges to provide veterans a place of burial. In many large communities, the center of the Soldier’s Circle was marked with a statue of a Union soldier, with the veterans buried in a circular formation around the statue. As time passed, veterans of other wars have been permitted burial in the G.A.R. plot – in many of these plots soldiers from the U.S. Civil War to the Korean Conflict and Vietnam War lie side-by-side as eternal brothers-in-arms.
The circle of graves in Union Cemetery’s G.A.R. plot is on the hillside overlooking Howard Street. I parked along the road and carefully made my way up the hillside to the resting place of the Union Soldier who received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Spotsylvania.
George W. Harris was born March 6, 1835 in Schuylkill County and by the start of the U.S. Civil War, he was residing near Runville in Centre County. On August 15, 1862, he enlisted in the Union Army at Milesburg and on August 29 was mustered into service as a private in Company B of the 148th Pennsylvania Infantry. In 1863, the regiment saw action at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg before pursuing the Confederate Army southward through Virginia.
On May 10, 1864, the regiment saw action at the Battle of Po River, near Spotsylvania Court House. Two days later, while fighting in the area known as the “Mule Shoe,” – which is also known as “The Bloody Angle” – Harris would perform the action for which he received the Medal of Honor. The Union plan of attack on the Confederate defenses on the morning of May 12 quickly turned into a semi-organized mob of Union soldiers which descended upon the Confederate line in hand-to-hand combat. As the two armies clashed, Harris wrestled the battle flag from the color bearer. As he claimed the battle flag, a Confederate officer attempted to retake the flag and Harris shot the Confederate soldier.
The unit would be involved in a number of battles throughout the remainder of 1864 including the Siege of Petersburg, the Battle of the Crater, and the Second Battle of Ream’s Station. Harris would survive these battles and was presented with the Medal of Honor on December 8 by General George Meade. The citation for his Medal of Honor reads: “The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Private George W. Harris, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 12 May 1864, while serving with Company B, 148th Pennsylvania Infantry, in action at Spotsylvania, Virginia, for capture of flag, wresting it from the Color Bearer and shooting an officer who attempted to regain it.”
Note: The 148th Pennsylvania had four soldiers who were recipients of the Medal of Honor. The four soldiers were: Private George Harris, Private Robert W. Ammerman, Captain Jeremiah Z. Brown, and Private Josiah Phillips).
Despite surviving many battles which saw his friends and companions fall, Harris almost did not survive the war. On March 31, 1865, during the Battle of Hatcher’s Run, which is also referred to as the Battle of White Oak Road, Harris was shot in the chest, damaging his lungs. After being treated at a Union Hospital, Harris was transferred to the U.S. Veteran Reserve Corps before being honorably discharged on May 11, 1865.
After the war, Harris returned to Centre County, settled in the Runville area, and married in 1871. He died in Bellefonte on January 30, 1921 at the home of Mrs. Ella Fredericks and was placed to rest with other veterans in the G.A.R. Plot. His burial spot was marked with a stone that sadly had the wrong death year on it. In 1991, a newer military stone with the correct date on it was added to the gravesite, which also remembered him as a recipient of the Medal of Honor. Note: In most places, it is listed that Harris had no children. However, his death announcement in the February 4, 1921 edition of The Democratic Watchman (Bellefonte, Pa) states Ella Fredericks was his only surviving child.
I finished paying my respects to Harris, remembering his service and bravery during the U.S. Civil War. I glanced around at the other men who rest in the G.A.R. plot and the American flags that decorated the hillside overlooking Howard Street, before leaving Harris to rest with his fellow soldiers in the sacred grounds of Bellefonte’s Union Cemetery.
Note: In the early 1980s, a story appeared locally about Harris’ service that continues to be passed down by word of mouth and is something I had shared in the past. But in researching this article, I found myself with more questions than definite answers about Harris time in the 148th Pennsylvania. According to this story, Harris entered the U.S. Civil War, he deserted in 1863, returned to Bellefonte, was sent back to his unit without any punishment where he became a model solider.
Reading through everything I could find about the life of George Harris, I cannot find anything in the military records that suggests this is true. To be honest, I cannot find anything before 1981 about George Harris being a deserter. In the regimental and regional histories, there is nothing to suggest that Harris had deserted his unit.
In Samuel Bates’ History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865, there is no mention of Harris having deserted. However, two other soldiers also named George W. Harris do appear in his rosters as having been mustered into service and either deserted or were unaccounted for.
The first alternate George W. Harris was from Milltown in Chester County, was mustered into service July 12, 1861 and deserted July 30, 1861 from Camp Harvey in Washington D.C. The other was from Philadelphia and he was mustered into service December 31, 1861. He is listed as unaccounted for at the end of the war. Until something about this story that is pre-1980 is revealed, I believe that Bellefonte’s Medal of Honor recipient George W. Harris was accidently mixed up with the two other men by the same name.